Louis, Christian Marclay, Ryoji Ikeda & Laurie Anderson

Louis, Christian Marclay, Ryoji Ikeda & Laurie Anderson
Martin Longley By

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Music, films, strobing, gauzy screens and sofa-projections in New York City...

Louis: with music by Wynton Marsalis

The Apollo Theater

August 30, 2010

It could be argued that certain problems are encountered when a live band plays musical accompaniment to a silent movie. In the old days, a musician's role was fairly functional. The aim was to lurk in the background, providing suitable sonic shading. If the players became too noticeable, they could be accused of not completing their stated mission.

In the modern world of now, when players have been increasingly drawn to the realms of filmic soundtracking, it's become expected that they should make more of a visible mark. After all, the live musicians might often be specifically providing the draw for a show's punters. With the unveiling of Louis at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem, matters became even more complex. This is a movie that's heavily indebted to the language of vintage silent features, but it happens to be brand new, and oddly modernistic in some of its stylistic tactics.

Then, there's the presence of Wynton Marsalis at the Apollo, an event which would pull in the crowds regardless of whether a movie was involved. The music for Louis also featured the pianist Cecile Licad (playing pieces by the Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk), and its primary aim is to re-create the sepia sounds of the 1920s and '30s. The pair were joined by a ten-piece band, all transfixed by their monitor screens for maximum synchronisation purposes. Most of its members were drawn from the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Louis is directed by Dan Pritzker, and shot by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. It stars Anthony Coleman as the young Louis Armstrong, a poignant comedian for one so young. It's set in the New Orleans of 1907, and is a companion piece to Pritzker's Bolden, which will be released in 2011.

As if to satisfy the possible audience urge for simply watching a band, the players warmed up the evening (as if conditions weren't sweltering enough already) by playing a few mood-establishing pieces prior to the lights dimming. Following a brief pause whilst the usual technical problems were surmounted, the full-length feature commenced.

The concept behind Louis is that its events are inspired by the childhood of Louis Armstrong, but there's no attempt at factual veracity. It's an archetypal representation of the times before jazz music lost its overt connection with sexual fluids. And also the times when jazz was specifically music for dancing. Both the copulation and the footwork can still happen today, but they no longer represent the central thrust of the music.

Anyway, much of the movie's action unwinds in a whorehouse. This creates ample opportunity for dance routines, as jazz combos were often on hand to provide hot sounds for hot liaisons. Such choreographed sequences provide the movie's core, impressive on a technical level, as well as being frequently amusing. The black'n'white $$$$-driven sexual commingling dynamic of yore has possibly been swept under the rug nowadays, but here it offers the chance to mix laughter with dismay. It's slapstick with sinister undertones.

The mute is an all-powerful device for suggesting sleaze, disease, booze, drugs, depravity and other good times. Marsalis and crew were overusing their flapping rubber, but we certainly weren't complaining: the slurs, splutters, smears, streaks and fearsome cries helped to engorge any stray swinging members.

On one level Louis acts like a mere music video, but on another it's poking around in some interesting social areas, commenting on poverty, racism, hypocrisy, hopelessness and transcendent achievement, often in the same breath. Armstrong the child is like unto some floating presence, downtrodden but strangely spiritually aloft. He and his horn are capable of solving any problem, at least while we're all under the spell of the movie theatre. There's a sentimentality that's continually stopping to observe itself, then self-consciously delivering a sharp wake-up slap.

What the music might lack in precise connection with visual events, it gains in period pinpointing and sheer electric charge. Perhaps there is a deliberate avoidance of making obvious sound effects, although there are a few moments of violence that are actually linked to percussive strikes. Interestingly, much of the solo action whilst Armstrong is first falling in love with his horn was provided by Wycliffe Gordon's enraged trombone. Other members of the ensemble included Marcus Printup, Ted Nash, Victor Goines and conductor Andy Farber. Marsalis himself didn't rise up to dominate very often, and Licad's role was equivalent to the old parlour pianist, pertly dramatic, emphatically ringing, but sometimes subverting the style with sudden jumpy clusters.

Christian Marclay

The Whitney Museum Of American Art

September 1-25, 2010

It was like discovering someone's secret life. Music buffs would bump into art lovers, and each would relate their experiences of Christian Marclay, from either a gigging or exhibiting perspective. Followers of his freely improvised turntablism would marvel at Marclay's prodigious output as a figurative conceptualist, not to mention filmmaker. Gallery stalkers would enter the listening room of the Whitney's extensively enlightening Marclay exhibition, cowering in fear as frenetic sonic disruption ensued (from the comfort of the room's cream sofa configuration). Upon entering this room (which was like being inside a gargantuan iPod), the visitor was struck with the yearning desire that all soirées could be like this: it was not unlike being in the least popular room at a house party, where stray bodies slumped alone, sinking into oblivion and deep furnishing. Then, when new arrivals came, it was curious to observe their caution upon entering the room, like gerbils staking out fresh territory, as Marclay jammed through the speakers, along with with the shuffling likes of Thurston Moore, John Zorn and Lee Ranaldo.

Both factions (giggers and gallerians) were admirably served by the depth of this show, not least its commitment to an almost daily musical programme. Marclay's pieces are mostly conceptual (but often blessed with humour), and primarily graphic in nature. Therefore, it was an astute practice to present a range of his works in several versions, with varying personnel. Their ultimate joy is how each piece's familiar, proscribed elements collide with the real-time reality of unpredictable and spontaneous realisations.

The accordionist Guy Klucevsek played "Ephemera," partly like its namesake, with fleeting finger-flutters and concise haiku-length pronouncements, but also featuring some more extended investigations of the instrument's possibilities, stretching sounds along with stretched expandable middle (just what is the correct name for an accordion's flexible torso? Its bellow?).

The "Screenplay" short film received several readings, but the version by J.G. Thirlwell (laptop), Marcus Rojas (tuba) and Kenny Wollesen (percussion) appeared less improvised than some. This was chiefly due to Thirlwell triggering separate retro-danger styled sections (what a movie sub-genre!) that were clearly in sympathy with the images, perhaps leaving his partners free to react with greater spontaneity. Wollesen became the chief sound effects man.

"Pret â Portèr" invites the greatest opportunity for humour, although this wasn't overly milked by trumpeter Peter Evans and saxophonist Ulrich Krieger. Let me just interject here to stress Marclay's absolute obsession with the trappings of musical notation, even though he's musically illiterate (in the conventional sense). Amongst his many compulsive gatherings is a rail of garments that all sport musical notes as part of their fabric. The aim of this piece is for a pair of human mannequins to work through the clothes, whilst the musicians play what they read on said togs. Model/dancer/performance artist # 1, Esther M. Palmer, appeared unused to this public dressing/undressing scenario, shunning invention and expression, and becoming merely functional. Model/dancer/performance artist # 2, Alberto Denis, was more adventurous in his revolvings and displayings of the 'scores.' There was the same kind of variance with the musicians: Evans would flatly stick to what was presented, ending when he'd run though the notes a single time, whereas Krieger would repeat, re-invent, or turn to the pile of clobber on the floor if his humannequin was too slow in changing gear. Whatever occurred, this was a consistently amusing performance, adventurous as well as being witty. Hearty entertainment stormed the avant-garde barricades!

Kato Hideki and Zeena Parkins turned away from their regular instruments to perform "Sixty-Four Bells And A Bow," which involved sitting at opposite ends of a long table lined with an impressive collection of hand-bells. Some were metal and large, others were glass or porcelain, and tiny. Initially, the pair were alternating scientifically, gradually working though the bells from left-to-right, line-by-line. Then, the sensible approach began to disintegrate, as Hideki and Parkins started to sample and distort the bell-sounds, extending their sonic threads. The large Tibetan-looking tinkler was a clear favourite. The piece successfully navigated a slow curve of gradual extension, as bells were stretched to the limits of their ringing potentiality.

Butch Morris worked with a string septet, applying his conduction techniques to "Graffiti Composition." First he left the strings to their own devices, allowing them to interpret the graphic score in their own way. Then he stepped in to direct the flow. Both sections sounded liberated, but each possessed a clearly discernible tack. The delights of freedom and (one person's) structure were equally sweet. The next day, Morris directed his chorus of poets, with no musical instruments in sight. This was a revelation. They were using "Mixed Reviews," which is a Marclay cut-up of flamboyant music reviewing phrases (hey!), but the creative pastings moved into another zone again, as these poets revealed themselves to be expressive actors, singers and performance artists, or even all three in a single frame. Their real-time cut'n'paste inventions (and those of Morris) were striking to behold.

On the day before the exhibition closed its lengthy run, Elliott Sharp led an ensemble through an alternative version of "Graffiti Composition." This bore no resemblance to the earlier Morris interpretation, thus underlining the exciting possibilities of Marclay's strategy. Here, Sharp concentrated on clarinet, and was surrounded by other blown instruments, handled by Curtis Fowlkes, Briggan Krauss, Nate Wooley, and Oscar Noriega, amongst others. The music began in containable fashion, but then the performers began to disperse, weaving amongst the casually-scattered audience, setting up a bewitching surround-sound environment that was constantly in flux, as fresh groupings of two or three players were formed for a while, sometimes closer to the ear of the individual, at other times more distant. More than ever, each person's musical experience was completely different, depending upon their location.

Marclay's "Zoom" is a glorified slideshow of his (again obsessive) capturing of images which feature commercial products that sport onomatopoeic names. His compulsion is catching. This is the projected piece in the exhibition that most transfixes the viewer. The live performance featured Marclay himself, but disappointingly sans turntables. Instead, he looked to be merely controlling the image-flow whilst vocalist Shelley Hirsch reacted at speed to the photographs (though sometimes the required rate of invention became a tall order). It was good to catch Marclay in person, as he was perhaps a touch too reclusive during his own excellent retrospective.

Ryoji Ikeda

Florence Gould Hall

September 11, 2010


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